Ask any of Leandro Issa’s teammates or training partners at Evolve MMA in Singapore and they will tell you that, as the 30-year-old prepares to make his UFC debut on Saturday night, he is on the brink of reaching the peak of his undeniable potential.
Issa (11-3) arrived in Singapore in 2009 with a handful of MMA fights under his belt and a long list of accomplishments in the BJJ world. He held a black belt and had won numerous tournaments and competitions but was, by his own admission, a one-dimensional mixed martial artist.
He has since developed into a much more well rounded fighter and has registered wins over Soo Chul Kim, Mazakazu Imanari, and Yusup Saadulaev, as well as challenging unsuccessfully for the ONE FC bantamweight title and says that moving to Singapore has helped him to develop both inside and outside of the cage.
“When I joined Evolve I had no money, I couldn’t speak English, I didn’t know wrestling or boxing or Muay Thai, but Evolve pay me to be a professor and a fighter and have helped me to achieve my dreams. I wouldn’t be able to have become a UFC fighter without Evolve,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
Arriving in Singapore without speaking a word of English was a challenge for Issa, who admits to spending hours on Google Translate at first, but he is now fluent and has settled into his new surroundings, where he combines his fight camps with commitments as a BJJ instructor.
His UFC Fight Night 34 bout with Russell Doane (12-3) will be the Brazilian’s seventh in Singapore. It is doubtful whether any other fighter has competed as often in a country that has seen an explosion of interest in MMA over the course of the last couple of years.
Issa is guaranteed the support of the local crowd when he takes on the Hawaiian, who will also be making his UFC debut, but the prospect of being a famous international fighter must have seemed like a distant one in his schoolboy days when, having just begun BJJ, he became a father for the first time.
“I remember I had just started BJJ and really enjoying the training when my girlfriend told me she was pregnant. When my son was born I was 15 years old. I just wanted to train, but I had to take care of my son. Thank God I had my family to support me.”
While Issa is now in the privileged position of receiving a full-time salary to teach at Evolve MMA, supplemented by his fight purses, he has not always had it so easy. In the early days he was forced to leave his family and friends behind in order to pursue his BJJ dreams.
“I started BJJ in Sao Paulo, but after I got my purple belt I moved to Sao Jose Dos Campos and trained all day and lived at the academy. I won the world championships in 2004 as a purple belt and after I got my black belt, I moved to Rio de Janeiro and started training MMA,” he recalls.
Issa made his MMA debut in Brazil winning his first two fights by submission, but after suffering a controversial loss in his third outing, when Takafumi Otsaka set up a TKO finish with a low knee that broke his cup, he decided to strike out for the U.S. with a friend.
“Antonio Braga Neto, who is in the UFC now, was my roommate and we decided to try and make a life in the U.S. We went to the Ralph Gracie Academy and they said we could stay there if we didn’t mind sleeping on the mat. I used to fold newspapers to make money.”
Issa also used to spend several months a year selling coconuts on the beach in Brazil in order to earn enough money to be able to dedicate himself to training in BJJ the rest of the time. His prospects changed dramatically when his friend Neto, who was working as a trainer at Evolve MMA, persuaded his former roommate to come and join him in Singapore.
The move gave Issa financial security as well as the impetus to go on a run that has seen him win eight out of his last nine fights, the sole defeat coming in a rematch with Kim, which had the inaugural ONE FC bantamweight title at stake. He credits the standard of training as being a contributory factor behind his fine recent form.
“The training at Evolve is great. I train with Muay Thai world champions and boxing world champions and Heaths Sims, who is Olympic wrestler, and a lot of high level BJJ guys. There is always someone to beat me up and make me better.”
Six out of Doane’s 12 MMA wins have come by way of knockout or technical knockout and Issa has been spending a lot of time preparing specifically for the skillset of his Hawaiian opponent.
“Russell is a good fighter and also making his debut in UFC, so both of us will be very hungry. I have been working a lot with Yodsanan Sityodtong, my boxing coach, but all the fighter from Evolve fight team are pushing me very hard every day,” he said.
UFC Fight Night 34, which is set for Marina Bay Sands in Singapore on Jan. 4, won’t be televised in the U.S., but Issa’s fight with Doane will be one of the first to be made exclusively available to view live on UFC Fight Pass, a new digital subscription service, which is free for the first two months.
Issa forged his reputation fighting in Asia, but hopes that signing with the UFC will help him get more recognition back home and would love nothing more than to fight in his native Brazil for the first time in four years.
“All my friend and family are very excited about me signing with UFC and I got a lot of message from Brazil. I would like to fight for UFC in Brazil one day, MMA there is huge and the fans are crazy.”
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